Tammis Foxton tried not to laugh. He knew his wife didn’t think it was funny, and when he laughed, it only made Clannia angrier. So he busied himself slicing a piece of roast into small pieces and tried hard not to look at the young orc licking the bottom of the bowl with its thick tongue. Every meal was the same. He knew the beast would lick the bowl clean and come up with food stuck to its face, as always. And his young daughter would burst into a fit of giggles, as always. Then it would be quite impossible for Tammis to keep a straight face.
Then he heard Taretha snicker.
“Look, Da,” she said. “He’s got food all the way up to his forehead.”
Tammis looked up, struggling to keep his face calm. The ugly green creature had set the bowl down and was looking straight at him, its blue eyes open wide, its face smeared with the blood and porridge mixture Lord Blackmoore insisted they feed it. This young orc, who when full grown would tower over the humans and be powerful enough to kill with its bare hands, sat there looking like an soiled tablecloth. Who could possibly be afraid of that?
The orc looked at Taretha and made a grunting sound. She realized he was staring at the bread she held in her hand.
“You’re still hungry, aren’t you?” the girl asked.
The orc grunted again. Its eyes followed with intense interest as Taretha took a bite of her bread.
“You want more?” Taretha asked, holding the bread closer to the orc. “More? You know how to ask.”
“More,” the orc echoed. “P’ease.”
With an enormous smile, Taretha handed him the bread. “Good boy, Thrall! You remembered to say please!”
Clannia jumped up, grabbing a towel from the cabinet. Roughly she scrubbed the residue from the orc’s face. With a mighty groan, she hefted the large creature from its chair, setting it on its feet. Unperturbed, the orc consumed the bread in three quick bites.
“See, Da?” Taretha said. “He’s really very smart. He only learned to say please yesterday, and already he remembers.”
“Yes, dear,” Tammis said.
“Lord Blackmoore didn’t say to feed him bread,” Clannia said sharply. “And I wouldn’t want to make Lord Blackmoore angry.”
“But, Mother, Thrall is hungry.”
“I give him all the food Lord Blackmoore provides.” Clannia sounded defensive. “What more can I do?”
Tammis looked up at her with a wicked gleam in his eye. “Perhaps you shouldn’t have weaned him so soon.”
Clannia slapped him with the dirty towel. Her ire brought a pink glow to her cheeks that made her look scarcely older than when they married, when she was a mere sixteen. For a moment Tammis felt sorry for her. Clannia hadn’t wanted to nurse this orphaned beast, but it had pleased Lord Blackmoore – and saved the infant orc’s life. She had worn herself to a frazzle, trying to nurse both the orc and their own infant son. Then, when their son had fallen ill with a fever, Clannia had stayed awake for three days straight, worrying alongside the doctor, trying every remedy she could think of only to see her son die in her arms. But the orc thrived. He grew strong on her milk, and then on the porridge Lord Blackmoore prescribed. The little beast that she had not wanted had lived while her son had died.
“It won’t be much longer, Clannia.” On sudden inspiration, Tammis reached for the platter holding the roast. The orc watched as he carved the rest of the meat from the bone, then Tammis handed the rounded bone to the young creature. Thrall took it in his stubby hand and licked it cautiously. Then the orc sank his sharp baby teeth into a scrap of meat still clinging to the bone and ripped it off.
Taretha laughed again. “Look, Da! He likes it!”
“If you’re done eating, Tari,” Tammis said, “why don’t you take Thrall in the front room?”
“Yes. I’ll read to him.” With a smile, Taretha slid off her chair, hastily folding her napkin, and then she reached for Thrall’s unoccupied hand. “Come on, Thrall. I’ll read you a book.”
Tammis didn’t suppress a laugh as he watched the orc, one green hand tucked into Taretha’s pale one and the other hand clutching his chew toy, toddle off beside her on his sturdy but still unsteady legs.
“What are you laughing at?” Clannia asked sullenly.
Tammis touched her forearm. “Taretha has such a great heart. How many hours did she spend holding Thrall’s hands, teaching him how to walk? Remember how she kept after him for days, trying to get him to say ‘more’? And now she’s trying to teach him to read.”
Clannia sighed and dropped her eyes for a moment.
“Lord Blackmoore couldn’t have picked a better nursemaid for his pet orc.” Tammis smiled at his wife. “Tari’s had the finest teacher in the art of motherhood.”
At the unexpected compliment, Clannia blushed. “Oh, Tammis. If I was – “
A knock at the door interrupted her. Tammis arose. As he walked into the front room, he gazed proudly at his young daughter, seated on a settee with the orc beside her. While Taretha pointed to pictures in her storybook, the beast sucked on the beef bone and nodded his head. At that moment, Tammis would have sworn Taretha, barely six years old, was fully capable of turning the wild, uncivilized orc into a gentle, well-mannered human being.
Tammis opened the door to find three of Blackmoore’s guards in full uniform.
“Lord Blackmoore sent us for the orc,” one of the soldiers said.
“I – oh.” Tammis sounded surprised. “So soon?”
Without answering, the soldiers pushed their way into the Foxtons’ house. One of the men spotted the beast and pointed. “There it is.”
Taretha and Thrall looked up from the book. The soldiers approached them cautiously.
“Da?” Taretha asked. “What are those soldiers doing?”
One of the soldiers advanced toward the orc.
“Lord Blackmoore wants Thrall,” Tammis replied.
“No!” she protested.
The soldier slipped his hands under Thrall’s arms and lifted. He groaned. “He weighs a ton!”
Taretha jumped to her feet. “You can’t take him! We’re in the middle of a book!”
Glancing at the girl, the soldier made a dismissive sound. He tried again to lift Thrall but the orc seemed to realize what was happening and clouted the soldier in the face with the bone. The soldier yelped. He grabbed the bone and had to pull hard to wrench it free of the young beast’s grasp. As it came loose, Thrall tumbled off the settee. Taretha threw herself at the soldier.
“Don’t you hurt him!” she yelled, pummeling the soldier with her fists.
The soldier back-handed her viciously across the face and Taretha hit the ground hard. The two other soldiers struggled with the orc. It took them both, one holding Thrall’s legs and the other his wrists, to get control over the wriggling, snarling young beast and drag him out the door. The third soldier glared at Tammis before he left.
Taretha hadn’t moved. She sat forlornly on the floor, blonde hair awry, a shocked look in her blue eyes, and a red hand-print beginning to show on her cheek.
Tammis gently lifted her up and carried the girl to the settee. Cradling her against his chest, he smoothed her hair into place. He looked up to see Clannia standing in the door.
“Now, Tari,” he said softly. “You knew we were only keeping the orc for a little while. You knew Lord Blackmoore wanted him back when he was old enough to -.” Tammis was stumped. What was the orc old enough to do?
“When he was old enough,” he concluded.
Clannia came to investigate at her daughter’s face. “Why did they have to hit her so hard?”
Tammis shook his head.
“Here, baby,” she said, “I’ll get you a cold rag to make your face feel better. Maybe you’d like some warm milk?”
Taretha clenched her jaw. “I want Thrall back.”
“That’s not possible,” Clannia said matter-of-factly. “He is Lord Blackmoore’s property, and Lord Blackmoore wants him elsewhere.”
“Best remember that,” Tammis added. “Lord Blackmoore is in charge, and we must do as he says.”
Taretha looked from one parent to the other and then sniffed. She sat up in her father’s lap. “I’m tired. Can I go to bed now?”
“Of course, dear. You go ahead, and I’ll bring you that cold rag for your face.” Clannia went back to the kitchen.
“You did very, very well helping us tend to the orc,” Tammis said,” but now we’re done. Best to forget about him.”
Taretha sniffed again. “I’ll never forget him, Da. He was like – like my little brother. And I bet he won’t forget me, either. I’m the only sister he’s got.”
“Of course, dear.” As Tammis watched his daughter walk away, he suspected she was right. Tari had more patience with that creature than either he or his wife had. She alone had shown him kindness when they had been brusque and impatient. Tammis knew somehow that the orc would not forget that.